B-2 soars, proving report wrong

Despite the release last month of yet another scathing report by the General Accounting Office on the capabilities of the B-2 stealth bomber, the NATO air campaign over Kosovo may have put to rest concerns about "significant flaws" in the plane's mission-planning and defensive avionics systems.

While GAO was putting its finishing touches on its sixth report in five years on the B-2 bomber program, pilots from the Air Force's 509th Bomb Wing were preparing to take the planes into their first real-world test in skies over Kosovo. Six B-2s flew as many as 50 missions from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., to their targets in Kosovo and Yugoslavia. Those flights lasted up to 30 hours, with "no mission aborts and no systems interface problems," according to officials from the 509th Bomb Wing.

The boomerang-shaped bomb-er was developed in 1981 by Northrop Grumman Corp.'s B-2 Division to be the Air Force's stealth bomber capable of delivering conventional or nuclear bombs across great distances in a short time. In 1986 each plane was estimated to cost $438 million. Today the total development and procurement costs for each bomber is estimated at more than $2.1 billion, according to GAO.

However, in its latest report, "Defense Acquisitions: Achieving B-2A Bomber Operational Requirements," GAO concluded that four significant deficiencies, including incomplete development of the ground mission planning system and problems with the plane's defensive avionics systems, "will limit, or under some circumstances slow, [the B-2's] pace in flight operations."

Although the report pointed out that GAO's testers did not evaluate the effectiveness of the B-2s taking part at the time in Operation Allied Force, it did say that "concerns remain" about the plane's ability to meet its operational requirements, such as planning missions in eight hours or less.

Despite the report's findings that the B-2's mission-planning system, known as the Air Force Mission Support System (AFMSS), still could not prepare missions in the eight hours required by the Air Force, officials from the 509th Bomb Wing said they were able to carry out missions against targets in Yugoslavia and Kosovo faster than ever before, and those missions were conducted effectively, raising questions about the technical requirements being placed on the B-2 program.

Lt. Col. George Gangnon, the 509th Bomb Wing's operational support squadron commander, admitted that his unit would have been "hard-pressed to build a mission from scratch in eight hours [during Operation Allied Force]." However, the time lag existed because little intelligence information was available at the outset of the air campaign to use for targeting and flight planning, he said. "Once we had our war machine humming, we were able to plan missions in about three to five hours," Gangnon said.

Since integration work began in 1994, AFMSS has become one of the most critical components of the B-2. It is designed to provide pilots with an automated means of planning the safest, most effective flying route to their targets.

AFMSS also has been one of the main targets of GAO's series of reports, particularly a 1998 report that quoted operators at the 509th Bomb Wing as saying the system "had so many failures that they estimated it would take 60 hours to plan a conventional mission and 192 hours to plan a nuclear mission" [FCW, July 6, 1998].

Performance results from Operation Allied Force, however, indicate a much improved system, Gangnon said. "Since October 1997 to the present, we've had four upgrades to the mission-planning system which have increased planning times from 96 hours to three to five hours," he said. The upgrades amounted to replacing 486 microprocessors with Intel Corp. Pentium IIs.

However, GAO maintained in its report that testers still found an unsatisfactory component of AFMSS. That component, called the Common Low Observable Auto-Router, is used to identify flying routes that optimize the B-2's stealth technology.

While new CLOAR software is scheduled for delivery to the 509th Bomb Wing next year, the report said that because of the problems, "some mission-planning time lines could grow to 10 hours."

In the Defense Department's official response to GAO's findings, George R. Schneiter, director of strategic and tactical systems in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, said DOD agreed that more work needs to be done in the area of mission planning and elsewhere, but the report failed to identify "demonstrated" progress.

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